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The Decline of Battery Life

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As I was writing my Evercade gaming device review, I noticed that the battery life of the new handheld machine wasn’t quite up to par, clocking in at about four hours playtime, fairly independent of the screen brightness settings. Of course I’m heavily biased here, vividly remembering having to lug around four spare AA batteries in case my original Game Boy would die on me. It almost never happened: the 1989 machine lasted for more than 20 hours!

Sure, the Grey Brick is very old. Sure, it was based on what Nintendo’s Gunpei Yokoi—the designer behind the best pocketable machine of all time—called Lateral Thinking With Withered Technology. But as a gamer, or even as an end user of any embedded piece of hardware, the trend towards shorter battery lives of devices is definitely visible.

Take a look at the average battery life of Nintendo’s handheld systems over the years:

Average battery life of devices.

Scrambling together these numbers required a lot of guesswork as my own playthroughs and reported numbers from various sources differed quite a bit. Nerdly Pleasures explains battery life in the 8-bit Game Boy line more thoroughly. Wired and IGN also conducted bigger tests.

Comparing battery life is much more involved than simply looking at the average play time. For one, there’s the kilowatt/hour and electric charge/hour rates of the batteries, the composition of the battery (lithium, nickel-metal hybrid, …) Secondly, there’s the required current of the device itself, also based on a slew of different requirements (CPU kind, size, make, RAM, screen technology and intensity, and so forth). Thirdly, it depends on the load of the machine (how the game itself was programmed and the brightness of the screen). I tried adding these to the graph but the resulting mess made me even more confused.

In essence, as an end user of these machines, I do not care about mAh, MHz, DDR3 or whatever. I care about the longevity. Will this thing last the long train ride? Can I still make a call after watching these YouTube videos on my smartphone?

Remember the Nokia 3310 cellphone from 2000? The battery of that beast lasted a whole week. A week! How many times did you charge your iPhone today? Again, the comparison is far from fair, but in terms of usability, it’s a huge step back. That’s why I’m still clinging onto my Sony Xperia Z1 Compact. Its battery lasts three days with mild usage. But I’m far from a devoted smartphone user, so again: no fair competition here. It’s not all bad nowadays though, my M1 MacBook Air is a fantastic piece of hardware that takes virtually ages to run dry. Even the four hours of my nine year old Air from 2012 is still decent.

Back to that Evercade I was fiddling with. It has a 1.2Ghz Cortex-A7 processor, a 4:3 LCD screen (the same as a PSP), and runs a custom version of Linux (of course it does). That means it’s basically a little computer I just happen to use for retro gaming. 8-bit, 16-bit and even 32-bit handhelds from the original GB to the GBA very simple embedded pieces of hardware. The Game Boy Color didn’t even have another processor: it was still the Z80, only running at twice the speed of the original model (8 MHz). The GBA “finally” contained a proper CPU, an ARM7TDMI running at 16.78 MHz. Except that its CPU cycles aren’t clogged with needless Linux daemons or kernel programs: there’s simply no OS! Pop in a cart and you’re ready to go. The Evercade is also cartridge-based, but relies on emulation—hence, a software layer (and more power) is needed.

Twenty years later, the Evercade is almost eighty times faster than the GBA, while its battery life has been divided by three. The first GBA model’s non-backlit screen is not that inferior to the Evercade’s bigger LCD screen. The quality is very bad (see my review), and my modded GBA with backlit fares of much better, without having to give in that much on battery time. The upcoming Analogue Pocket—that uses hardware emulation with FPGAs instead of software emulation—reportedly does not perform that much better, with a battery life of six hours as a rough estimation. But that one comes with a high-quality screen. Or so they say.

Power for battery life—a fair trade-off? I’m not so sure.

I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a level 36 Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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